Harvard Survey Shows Rate Of College Gambling Lower Than Previous Estimates

Results Suggest Possibility of Fewer Gambling Problems Among Students

Apr 14, 2004

WASHINGTON—The first nationally representative survey of gambling among college students found fewer college students than expected participate in gambling activities, leading researchers at Harvard Medical School to suggest in a new report that the prevalence rate of pathological gambling among college students might be significantly lower than rates reported in previous studies.

The recently published, peer-reviewed article by Richard LaBrie, Ed.D., Howard Shaffer, Ph.D., Debi LaPlante, Ph.D. and Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., analyzed answers to questions on gambling included in the 2001 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS). According to the CAS survey—funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ) and the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG)—42 percent of college students gambled in the past year (compared to 82 percent of adults in the most recent national survey of household residents 18 years of age and older), and 2.6 percent gambled at least weekly during the school year (compared to 23 percent in the household survey).

While the study did not attempt to define the prevalence rate of disordered gambling among college students, it isn’t likely to be any higher than the percentage of students who gambled weekly or more frequently, the researchers said. The authors write, “If all the students who gamble weekly or more often met criteria for pathological gambling, college students would be at risk no more from problem gambling than the general adult population is.”

The report concluded that the CAS findings “do not indicate that college students are a group at increased risk for gambling problems compared with their adult counterparts.”

Researchers cautioned, however, that the lower level of participation does not mean there is no risk for college students who do gamble. According to the study, “Although the findings reported in this article do not indicate a large national gambling problem among college students, the promotion of gambling directed at college students and a greater acceptance of Internet gambling could change the current situation.”

These findings contradict the widely held opinion based on previous studies that gambling is prevalent among college students. A previous Harvard Medical School study estimated a higher frequency of gambling among college students and a rate of problem gambling three times the estimate for adults.

According to the researchers, the higher rates of gambling and problems due to gambling reported in earlier studies are likely the result of several shortcomings, including a lack of available data on the gambling behavior of a large representative sample of students and questioning students about events in their lifetime, which would include incidents that occurred before the students were in college.

The 2001 CAS repeated standard questions used in the 1993, 1997 and 1999 surveys to determine rates of college alcohol use and related problems. Gambling questions were added to the 2001 survey in an effort to fill the gap in knowledge about the prevalence of gambling among college students, as well as to determine the existence among these students of problem behavior clusters specifically related to gambling. The survey was conducted using a representative national sample of 10,765 students attending 119 scientifically selected four-year colleges, and students were asked specifically to report gambling done in the past school year.

According to the study, being male and at least 21 years of age were the most significant demographic predictors of being a college gambler. The study also showed that of the 42 percent of college students who reported participating in some form of gambling activity during the past school year, a majority—73 percent—said they participated in only one or two types of gambling, and 94 percent of student gamblers said they wagered no more than a few times a month on any type of gambling. Playing the lottery was the most popular form of gambling, cited by 25 percent of respondents.

In addition to measuring rates of gambling among college students, the Harvard researchers analyzed six different categories of personal characteristics for potential predictors of being a student gambler, including demographics, lifestyle choices, school status and rate of substance-use risk behaviors. Among the six categories of predictors, alcohol-related behaviors were the strongest risk correlates of gambling.

The results found that student gamblers are more likely to drink alcohol, to binge drink and to have unprotected sex as a result of binge drinking. Of the 33 personal behaviors closely linked with binge drinking, 29 were also significantly related to gambling. According to the researchers, this commonality of risky behaviors suggests an underlying problem-behavior syndrome—a tendency to engage in several risky behaviors.

“We’re proud to be one of the sponsors of the survey providing us with the first truly nationally representative data on college student gambling,” said NCRG Chairman Dennis Eckart. “Research like this provides a sound building block for future investigations of gambling on college campuses and contributes to the knowledge base that will eventually lead us toward better prevention and treatment of disordered gambling.”

“Correlates of College Student Gambling in the United States” was published in the September/October edition of theJournal of American College Health. All four researchers are affiliated with the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School; Wechsler also is director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Studies Program.

The data used in the study were collected under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropic organization devoted exclusively to health and health care. The project was supported, in part, by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to research on gambling disorders.

To obtain a copy of the study, contact Christine Reilly (617-384-9028) or Holly Thomsen (202-530-4508).

The NCRG, the only national organization devoted exclusively to public education about and funding of peer-reviewed research on disordered gambling, was established in 1996. The NCRG supports the finest peer-reviewed basic and applied research on gambling disorders; encourages the application of new research findings to improve prevention, diagnostic intervention and treatment strategies; and enhances public awareness of pathological and youth gambling. To date, the casino industry and related businesses have committed more than $12 million to this effort, and the NCRG has issued more than $8 million in support of groundbreaking research on gambling disorders. In 2000, the NCRG established the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions. For more information, visitwww.ncrg.org.

The Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders is a program of the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School. In accordance with the Harvard University name policy, the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders should not be referred to as the “Harvard Institute…” or the “Harvard Medical School Institute…” For more information about the use of the Harvard name, visithttp://www.hms.harvard.edu/fa/use_of_the_Harvard_name.html.